The Vipassana Retreat

5. Working with Thinking and Pain in Meditation

At the beginning of the practice at least, a lot of meditators are much troubled by their thoughts as well as painful body sensations. Pain from the sitting posture is workable, as the cause comes from not being accustomed to the crossed legged sitting posture. Thinking is more of a challenge, as it requires patience and skill to come to terms with it.

Meditators are likely to assume that somehow they must get rid of the thoughts or block them out to be successful in meditation. This might be the case in concentration-based meditation, where the one-pointed concentration on the meditation object will eventually suppress the thinking process to produce a state of calm. But in Vipassana meditation we do not want to suppress the thinking merely to get some relief from the turbulence in the mind. Rather we seek to insight into the nature of the mind and to the thinking process itself.

Thinking by its nature cannot be exactly aligned with the present moment experience. It can describe it but the description can never be the actual experience. Thinking is mostly either of the past or a projection into the future. Thinking creates ideas, plans, concepts, or opinions produced by mental activities. It is a symbolic, not an ultimate reality. It does not lead to the primary experience, that is, direct experiential knowing.

The strategy in working with thinking in Vipassana meditation is to first allow it to be, not getting into struggle with it, and to regard it as just another object to be noted. In time, one becomes skilled in witnessing the thinking process without becoming involved so much in the content of the mind. It is like standing on the pavement passively aware of the traffic going by without reacting to the passing traffic itself; until eventually the mind is quiet or at least it quietens down somewhat. Then the naturally quiet or silent mind opens to the direct experience of the phenomena under observation.

To have the truly ‘stilled mind’ is not so easy, for again and again the meditator finds himself or herself ‘lost in thought’, only catching the thinking retrospectively. Patience and perseverance is called for in this situation. Be assured in time that the trains of thoughts will slow down sufficiently so that you will start to notice gaps or pauses in the thoughts.

So by being aware, even just occasionally, of the gaps in the thinking, there is an opening to be able, as it were, to catch the next thought as it is forming, that is the beginning of the thought. This acts as a circuit breaker. The circuit is broken and the mind has quietened and one’s attention is able to resume noting the primary object. At this level the mind has quietened sufficiently to just know, that is, the mind knowing the mind.

In the short term, there is another way to work with circuitous thinking using ‘skillful means’. That is, using the mental noting of ‘thinking’,’ thinking’, ‘thinking’ to cut the incessant thinking. But it has to be done vigorously otherwise one can find one has drifted off thinking about the nature of thought! The mental noting of thinking can be a powerful tool to inhibit the thinking, but has to be used judiciously.

There is a saying: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”.

Understandably, meditators want the unpleasant feeling or pain they are experiencing in the practice to go away. The underlying assumption is that by bearing the pain it will go away and then they will feel good, and without the pain they will have pleasant experiences as a reward for their effort. Actually, in Vipassana meditation we do the opposite: that is, we are trying to understand the nature of pain and to investigate the so-called pain – not to get rid of it. The Vipassana meditator is very fortunate to have pain, at least posture pain, as it is an excellent teacher – with the added bonus that you will at least remain awake!

Pain is the body’s signal that something is wrong. The pain is telling you that you must attend to it. The painful sensations we work with in meditation are mostly those from the sitting posture. The reason, of course, for the pain is that a person is not used to sitting in the crossed legged position for long periods at a stretch. So posture pain is workable.

The rule of thumb when working with any pain is to first check – given that it is not a pre-existing condition – whether its cause is a health problem or not. Take note as to whether the pain that one was experiencing during the sitting goes away more or less immediately after the session. If that is the case, then one can be assured that it is only posture pain and no damage is being done.

When one experiences posture pain in sitting meditation, it is actually an opportunity to work with it. Regard it as your best friend, as you can learn much from it. So do not drive it away. Invite it in and get to know it. It is not a matter of just bearing the pain. The practice is to investigate it – to penetrate it deeply. If you can successfully work with physical pain, then you are more likely to be able to work with mental pain.

Yet meditators are inclined to avoid working with pain. For example, every time they get to the threshold of pain they pull away, and this then becomes the ‘pain barrier’, a block in the practice. They hope that they can build up a tolerance of pain without having to work with it. But unfortunately disinclination to work with pain becomes a major mental and physical obstacle to the meditator’s progress.

How to Work with Pain

It is not likely that you are experiencing pain all over the body, so first localise it, for example in the knee area. Initially, there might be muscular reaction to the pain: like when one has a dip in icy cold water, there is an initial shock, but once one is in the water usually one can bear it and stay with the cold sensations. Relax and soften into the painful sensations, looking for particular characteristics in the pain – heat, tension, stabbing, throbbing, etc.

When there is no resistance to the pain, the particular characteristics will manifest. Then when the particular characteristics are aligned with the ‘knowing of’ (consciousness of) the pain this will reveal the general or universal characteristics of change, unsatisfactoriness, and insubstantiality.

Besides posture pain, there can be all sorts of mysterious aches and pains in this type of meditation, so-called ‘vipassana pain’, that is, various painful sensations in the body, often so intense that you suppose there must be some medical condition causing them. If that is the case, having checked whether that is or not – then not to worry, it is all ‘workable’. They have a saying in the Burmese Vipassana tradition: “Pain is the doorway to Nibbana”. The teachers are very pleased when you report interesting pain in the interview, as they know that you can make good progress in the meditation if you are prepared to work with and can sort out the pain from the suffering.

It is the resistance to the pain that is causing the suffering. The mind is striking at the so-called pain, complaining about the pain, wanting it to go away or trying to dissociate from the pain. But once you are able to work with pain you will be able to differentiate the pain from the suffering, and thus how one relates to the pain will change.

Three Kinds of Suffering

Not appreciating the basic premise of the Buddha Dharma, that is, the 1st Noble Truth, the fact of suffering (dukkha sacca), is the root of the problem. It cannot be as a senior monk has recently advocated, that the Buddha’s 1st Noble Truth is that of Happiness! Understandably, the fact of suffering is not palatable to many people; but if you think you will popularize the Buddha’s Dharma in this way then one is mistaken. This is contrary to the Buddha’s core teaching and the reason why so many people are caught in delusion. Whether we like it or not, we need to understand and be able to handle suffering to some extent, especially mental suffering, notwithstanding our inclination to acknowledge the fact of suffering or not.

Vipassana meditators are more likely to be compelled to work with the three kinds of suffering: ordinary suffering (dukkha-dukkha) such as emotional ups and down, and relationship difficulties. We all experience this ordinary suffering to some degree. But if you are skillful it need not be such a problem as you can work with this kind of suffering.

Then there is the suffering of change (viparinama dukkha) also known as the ‘suffering of happiness’. Whether it is a change in circumstances or just a mind-state, nothing can remain the same for very long, everything, absolutely everything is subject to change. But if one is not so attached to things or relationships, then again, this type of suffering caused by change is manageable.

The third kind of suffering is not so apparent – it is conditioned or existential suffering (sankhara dukkha). Ordinary people are usually not even aware of it. It is the deep suffering stemming from the mental constructions (sankharas). It is experienced in the ‘insight knowledges’ (vipassana nanas) in Vipassana meditation, when the intelligence and wisdom is highly developed, that one sees that all mental and physical phenomena are unstable, unsatisfactory and are just an impersonal process – not me, not myself. The maturity of this insight brings about a deep transformation of consciousness that finally frees us from all suffering.

The purpose of Buddhist meditation, Vipassana or otherwise, is not just for curing physical diseases. If physical healing happens to occur then it is considered a byproduct of the practice, nothing more. A whole range of stress related physical illnesses such as stomach ulcers, angina, migraine, etc., could be alleviated by meditation practice. But meditation is not about miraculous cure – that is more of the nature of faith healing.

Healing and transformation is the outcome of the practice. All forms of suffering or mental pain, such as anguish, remorse, grief, etc., can be cured in Vipassana meditation, through the purification of the mind. That is the real miracle. Whether medical science can ultimately cure all physical disease is problematic, as it is the nature of the body to eventually break down. All phenomena have three phases: birth, life and death. Therefore, pain is inherent in nature. While we may or may not be able to cure physical disease, Vipassana meditation is tailored to cure mental suffering.

Nobody wants to suffer, and the underlying message of the Buddha Dharma is that suffering on all levels is unnecessary. We do not need to suffer. There is the fact of suffering, the cause of suffering, the ending of suffering and the practice path leading out of suffering. If we are suffering, it is because of ignorance – not knowing. What we usually experience is unnecessary suffering.

But we do not need to suffer mentally at all, as the compassionate Buddha has shown us that the way to be free of suffering is through wise attention that insights into the true nature of the mind and body, then we can finally be free from the burden of suffering.